For this entry in the Visiting Japan Feature series at Anime Inferno, AussieGirl shares her experiences hitting up the slopes in Japan, with her most recent being a ski holiday to Hakuba in February 2019…
The snow season in Japan is something people travel far and wide for the powder experience of a lifetime. Their snowfall is rated as some of the best in the world. So, wanting to experience something different we decided to go for a ski holiday! I’ve been to Japan several times since 2002, and in 2017 I ventured to Hakuba, nestled in the Japanese Alps. It was so much fun we went again this year in February. I am from Tropical North Queensland, so my first ever ski holiday (at 31 years old) was a very special one for me (and for Calo as well by the sound of it!). This place is fantastic for beginners with several parks to choose from. I’ve compiled some useful information for first time skiers heading to the Hakuba Valley.
Planning the important things for your ski holiday
Being so close to Tokyo, Hakuba Valley is very popular during the peak season of December to March. I booked our accommodation 5 months in advance to avoid any issues. I checked 3 weeks before we departed, and the only available space was a camp ground under 2 metres of snow! If you can find accommodation close to a ski field, Echoland or a bus stop it will make getting around much easier.
We aimed to ski during the week, as weekends and public holidays bring the crowds. It’s a noticeable difference too since the lines slow down the fun. If you don’t have any clothes suitable for skiing, renting can be far cheaper than buying. This is especially true if you are only there for a couple of days. I highly recommend buying a few pairs of proper ski socks at the very least. I was lucky enough to pick up a discounted Helly Hansen Jacket before going over. It was my lifesaver and has paid for itself after 2 trips! Trust me, your regular Australian winter woollies won’t be suitable for the slopes.
Pre-book the essentials to avoid missing out:
- Ski apparel,
- waterproof/apres boots,
- ski/snowboard gear, and
Also sort out your travel insurance, I saw too many injured people without it.
Starting the ski holiday experience – heading into the mountains
The most convenient transport to Hakuba and the Nagano area from Tokyo is by bus and/or train. During winter there is a direct express train departing from the Shinjuku JR Station, which takes about 4.5 hours. It’s the Azusa 3 and leaves at 7am SHARP!
We purchased tickets the day before, and found the correct departure gates so we didn’t get lost in the morning. You may prefer to head up over a whole day and sight see on the way as part of your ski holiday. If that’s the case, visit the HyperDia website for timetables, prices and route options.
I haven’t taken the buses before, but some services go from Narita Airport and major train stations. They do take a bit longer than the train, but generally are cheaper. Personally I prefer the trains, they are a real novelty for me as we don’t have them for public transport at home. Plus you can eat and drink in comfort if you want to.
Ski holiday essentials – getting around in Hakuba
Hakuba isn’t a huge place but they have several ski resorts you can get to using the free shuttle bus service. We were lucky enough that our hostel had one right out the front door. The first buses start from about 7:30am depending on the stop/destination.
For the free shuttles, don’t expect much in terms of comfort, space or available seats. They usually only run once every hour and can fill up quickly. We always caught the very first bus to avoid crowds, and were the first at the ski fields most days. There are other buses which run more frequently from other places. These include Hakuba Base Camp and Ski fields, but you will pay a small fee of about ¥200 or ¥500 for the convenience. There is also the Genki Go night shuttle doing the rounds to make sure all the party goers get home after dark. I am absolutely pathetic when it comes to the cold, so we didn’t stray too far from the hostel warmth at night.
Ski holiday rental gear
Getting your gear for your ski holiday is easy as there are a couple of decent rental places around. Most will have English speaking staff, which is common in Hakuba. We used SPICY Rentals, which have several locations around the valley. They will deliver all your equipment after a measure up. They were also happy to exchange sizes during rentals and swap skis for snowboards. You can also return your gear to any store in Hakuba Valley. Most resorts will have rentals available as well. This may be more convenient if you are only going to one place during your ski holiday. I also purchased a cheapo pair of goggles as I underestimated how free moving snow is and my sunglasses just weren’t good enough. It ended up cheaper to buy that to rent in this case!
Learning to ski or snowboard
If you have NEVER been on skis or a snowboard before and only have a limited time, I would recommend the skis. We did a half day morning lesson and were up and going on our own in the afternoon. Snowboarding takes a lot longer to pick up on, so if you have a few weeks to learn you won’t have any issues there.
Either way, expect to fall down quite a bit. I did a lesson in 2017, and another one in 2019 as a refresher which was really helpful. Most ski schools will have half day, full day, private or group lessons and they teach you based on your skills. Learning to ski is an amazing part of a ski holiday so take the time to learn to get the most out of it!
They also give advice on carrying your equipment, walking in boots and other bits and pieces you wouldn’t otherwise know.
Pretty much all will have English speaking staff, and they have kids classes of all ages. Most ski resorts have schools operating on resort grounds. But, you may need to pre-book depending on how busy it is. We were lucky enough we could call the day before and book for the next morning.
Ski parks and lift passes
As a beginner my favourite place was Goryu, Iimori and Hakuba 47 which are all linked under the one lift pass.
Iimori in the middle has the best beginner green run the ski schools use. The lifts are slow, easy to get onto and the slope is perfect for learning. Goryu Escal Plaza had a longer green run. Hakuba 47 has one right from the top of the mountain snaking down to the bottom.
My next pick was Tsugaike, as their green runs zig-zagged through the forest. It was an incredible sight in the snow. After a few days of skiing and getting used to moving around, I was able to take in the scenery a bit more and appreciate the areas we went.
We also managed to get to Happo-One and Iwatake. Cortina was the talked-about golden mountain for powder. It can be a bit harder to get to though as there are few bus change overs.
Gondolas are your friend
Most resorts have a gondola that will go straight to the highest point in the park. If there are no green runs back down, you can come back by gondola. This will save you the terror of an intermediate slope or total white-out.
You can buy your lift passes on a day to day basis if you are visiting different parks. If you are staying in one place you could also get multiple day passes. It’s also possible to get a lift pass to cover for the whole of Hakuba Valley. These are more expensive so always make sure you are purchasing the right one! Usually people visiting for the whole season will get the valley passes.
Food options in Hakuba
All the ski parks have food courts and other restaurants nearby. This means you are never far from a warm ramen or karaage bowl. Some are even up in the middle of the ski slopes! Also, don’t be surprised when you find a Corona Beer Bar at the top of a ski lift in the middle of nowhere!
Signs on the slopes (and what not to do!)
Pay attention to signs! We missed a turn-off and ended up in someone’s back yard. It was funny until we realised we had to walk back up the path with all our gear!
Sometimes a red or black diamond will cross over a green run, but it’s usually easy to tell the difference. Sometimes they also close certain paths. In these cases you may need a special permit to be able to enter forested areas due to wildlife or difficulty. Someone in our hostel got chased down by park security after going where he wasn’t allowed to!
We only had half a day off the slopes before departing so didn’t get to do all the things we wanted to.
We walked to a little glass-making workshop and I made my own glass bead (super proud, I love my bead). Next we walked to check out the Olympic Ski Jump Stadium. The Stadium is a great way to kill an hour or so, and just walking through the massive structure is great fun. Visiting an onsen (hot spring) is the best thing to help you relax and recover from any sore muscles, something Mangaman will attest to! Treat yourself to an outdoors onsen if you can find one.
For the more adventurous there’s some other great things to check out. These include snowshoe tours, snow mobile tours, tea ceremonies and even cooking classes.
If you want to see the snow monkeys, you can make your own way by train and bus. Or you can pay for a tour experience with all the bells and whistles. The tours may also go to Matsumoto Castle or the Meiji shrine on the way.
Back to Tokyo…
We chose to go to Hakuba due to the easy access from Tokyo, and have been there twice since 2017. This year we stayed much longer and were on the slopes for 9 days straight, a good effort for an absolute beginner like me!
We also looked for new things to do in Tokyo before and after skiing. Iron Chap and Mangaman have written at length on nerding out in Tokyo so I’ll focus on some of the other stuff we did. Mt Takao was just amazing for a semi-hike experience (thank god for cable cars). We hit the baseball batting cages on a few occasions at Tokyo Dome too. Disney Sea was another highlight, the float parade was just incredible and I highly recommend even if you aren’t that into Disney!
Visiting Japan and heading up to Hakuba made for a really amazing ski holiday. If you are interested in hitting the slopes, even if you’ve never seen the snow before, I highly recommend it!